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Was Thatcher a Thatcherite?

Margaret Thatcher

Almost 30 years after she first entered Downing Street, Professor Richard Vinen considers whether Margaret Thatcher was responsible for the political ideology that carries her name.

Conservative grandees, and members of the British establishment in general, were sniffy about Margaret Thatcher.

When she became leader of her party in 1975, many of them declared that she would never last.

Fifteen years later, when she had won three elections and survived as prime minister for over a decade, they often suggested that the serious thinking behind her policies had been done by other people.

Nigel Lawson, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer between 1983 and 1989, believed that he himself was the first Conservative to use the term Thatcherism, adding that this was not "whatever Margaret Thatcher herself at any time did or said".

Riddled with contradictions

Striking miners picketing at Tilmanstone Colliery in Kent
Many supported Thatcher's aim of reducing the power of trade unions

In one sense, no one was a Thatcherite, because Thatcherism was never a unified idea.

A general belief in promoting free markets and in reducing the power of the trade unions pervaded Thatcher's whole period in office, but these beliefs could be found across the whole Conservative party and beyond it - many members of the Social Democratic Party supported Thatcher's trade union laws.

On other issues there was inconsistency and division even among Thatcher's closest supporters.

As Chancellor of the Exchequer during her first government, Geoffrey Howe was a hardcore Thatcherite in terms of economic policy.

But he disliked the views on immigration that helped Thatcher win the 1979 election and he hated the views on Europe that she, and many others who defined themselves as Thatcherites, came to express in the late 1980s.

Enemies at home

If Thatcherism is so riddled with contradictions, why use the term at all? What made the governments of the 1980s so special?

Part of the answer lies with Thatcher's enemies. The term Thatcherism was first used, in a systematic way, by the journal Marxism Today.

Margaret Thatcher on Panorama in 1980
Thatcherism was as much an attitude as a political stance

The sharp turn of the Labour party to the left in the early 1980s helped to create a sense of polarization in British politics that made Thatcherism seem more dramatic.

And the use of "monetarism" as a term of abuse made the Tories seem more ideologically coherent than they really were.

Even Thatcher's enemies in the Conservative party (Sir Ian Gilmour and Sir Edward Heath) helped. Their attacks on Thatcherism made it seem novel and exciting.

Thatcher's associates came to revel in the sense of themselves as a brave minority implementing radical policies. In many ways this adversity defined Thatcherism.

This was especially true of the deep economic recession of the early 1980s. The government did not expect or want a downturn, but in an odd way it served their purposes.

It lent drama to their first few years in office and it conveyed a sense of purpose. To paraphrase Lady Bracknell: one million unemployed may be misfortune; three million unemployed looks like a policy.

Personality politics

So what did Thatcher bring to the mix? Partly, she brought practical politics. She had precisely the quality that her opponents accused her of lacking: pragmatism. She knew how to compromise, wait and balance different interests.

Margaret Thatcher enters No 10 Downing street as Prime Minister in May 1979
Despite her image, many of Thatcher's policies were highly pragmatic

However, Thatcher's relative caution in terms of what she did went with a remarkable ability to gain electoral advantage through the radicalism of what she said, or sometimes even just through the tone in which she said it.

Much of Thatcherism consisted in a certain moral mood music rather than in specific policy commitments. The restoration of hanging, for example, was important to Thatcher's personal image but there was never the faintest chance that the House of Commons would vote to bring it back.

By stressing tone rather than policies (or by focusing on policies that no one really expected to see implemented) Thatcher was often able to make herself look like a radical opponent of her own government.

The end

Eventually tone let her down. Thatcher's combative manner became a hindrance after the big battles of the 1980s had been won.

Thatcher herself came to be seen as an electoral liability.

Tory canvassers got so used to hearing the words "that bloody woman" that they coined the acronym TBW - until an unkind interviewer enlightened her Thatcher thought that it was a television station.

Europe was also important because it undermined the gulf between tone and policy that had previously marked Thatcher's approach. From the late 1980s onwards, she was talking tough on an issue that had conspicuous policy implications.

Enoch Powell is an interesting figure in all of this. Some Conservatives liked to imply that it was he who, by defending free-market economics in the 1960s, had really "invented Thatcherism".

Enoch Powell
Right-wing firebrand Enoch Powell could be seen as the first Thatcherite

Powell was, unlike Thatcher, an intellectual purist. She once told him that "in strict academic logic, the Right Honourable Gentleman is right. In everything else he is wrong".

Powell had left the Conservative party in 1974 but increasingly supported Thatcher after her Bruges speech on Europe in 1988 and in 1990 he wrote to Norman Tebbit, the effective manager of Thatcher's campaign to remain Tory leader, offering to rejoin the party if this would help her chances.

Worldly Tories must have realized that Powell's support was a sure sign that Thatcher was finished.

Professor Richard Vinen is the author of Thatcher's Britain: The Politics and Social Upheaval of the Thatcher Era




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